May 15, 2003
MEN'S LACROSSE IN GOOD HANDS WITH MIKE DALY
by Paul Sweeney
His peers in the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (NEILA) voted Tufts' Mike Daly, A95, the region's Division III Coach of the Year this spring. Under Daly's direction, the 2003 Jumbos had a breakthrough season. With 12 victories, they won more games than any team in the 73-year history of the Tufts program. The team advanced to play in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championship game against Middlebury College on May 4. Tufts lost, 15–10, but the program has been reborn.
Daly was a fine two-sport athlete at Tufts. For his senior year in 1994–95, he won Tufts' Rudolph J. Fobert (A50, G51) Award as the top multi-sport student-athlete. As a football receiver he caught 84 passes for 1,415 yards and 11 touchdowns from 1991 to 94. In the spring he emerged as the starting center fielder on the baseball team and played for the 1995 NCAA tournament team.
That's right, Daly didn't play lacrosse at Tufts. In January 1999 he was promoted to head coach of the sport without any playing experience. He was 26 years old. Those who knew him thought he was the right man for the job. Any job. Those who didn't know him would soon find out.
Tufts had finished 1–13 in 1997 and 2–12 in 1998. The program's all-time record was more than 100 games below .500, and the general perception was that the administration didn't care about the team. Daly's loyalty and determination were unquestioned as an athlete and then as a graduate assistant coach in football and lacrosse at Tufts. Skeptics saw it as lacrosse getting the short end of the stick again.
"It had nothing to do with Coach Daly as much as it was about an assistant football coach who had never played lacrosse being hired to coach the lacrosse team," said Dan Kollar, A01, a sophomore on Daly's first team who went on to become the program's all-time leading scorer. He's now the team's graduate assistant coach.
"He was real honest and straightforward. He said, ‘I didn't play lacrosse. I don't know a lot about it. I will. I promise you I will.'"
Before long, Daly's ambition to take the team to new heights erased any doubts brought on by his inexperience. To learn all that he could about the game, he went to summer camps, attended the coaches' conventions and wasn't afraid to ask other coaches for advice. Pat Cain, a Tufts assistant coach at the time, remained with the team as Daly's lacrosse mentor and top aide. For his first year at the helm in 1999, the new coach focused on motivating the team and improving their physical conditioning.
"When we were 5–10 my first year, my goal was to win every game we played and win the national championship," he said. "That still is our goal. That's why we play. Certainly there have to be some guidelines and sportsmanship and play the game the way it should be played. Our goal is to do all those things, but we play to win and that's what our expectations are."
The team's talent improved as Daly and his staff looked to recruit good kids who were also "lacrosse junkies."
In 2000 Tufts won nine games and earned an ECAC tournament berth, its first in five years. The 2001 season featured wins over Williams, Colby and Amherst, along with a berth into the inaugural NESCAC tournament. The Jumbos then won five games against NESCAC teams in 2002, leading to a second straight NESCAC tournament appearance. Step by step the team's confidence was building.
This was the year that it all came together. Tufts hosted and beat Bowdoin, 14–13, in the first round of the NESCAC tournament at Ellis Oval/Zimman Field on April 27. Incomplete team records don't go back far enough to reveal the last year Tufts won a home playoff game, but it wasn't any time recently. Trailing 5–2 against Wesleyan and a red-hot goalkeeper in the NESCAC semifinals, they came back to win 8–7. Tufts earned respect. They were ranked 20th in the final national poll. Sophomore attack Bryan Griffin was named New England and NESCAC Player of the Year.
"The biggest change this year is that we weren't satisfied to just play in the championship game," said David Richman-Raphael, a senior defender. "We wanted to win it. In the first few years we were almost satisfied with just making the playoffs. Coach Daly provided the drive and motivation for us to push ourselves. When he talked to us, he believed we could be champions. We came close."
Coming close in the NESCAC is no small achievement. Top to bottom, it's the most competitive conference in the country. Middlebury College, coached by Erin Quinn, G89, won three consecutive NCAA National Championships from 2000 to 2002. Quinn, who like Daly did not play the sport, earned a master's degree from Tufts and served as a graduate assistant coach here. He's impressed with the opposition's progress.
"Mike's teams are disciplined, fundamentally sound and talented," said Quinn. "I have watched things such as their pre-game warm-up and have been very impressed with what is being taught and stressed in his program. Coach Daly is also doing a great job recruiting, which bodes well for the future of the program."
Daly hasn't left Tufts since enrolling in 1991 out of Westfield, Massachusetts. He is one of seven Tufts graduates currently coaching varsity sports programs at their alma mater. John Casey, A80, Daly's baseball coach and an influential person in his career, has more than 300 victories with the Jumbos.
"The reasons that I ended up choosing Tufts are that I find a lot of the things that we're selling in the recruiting process," said Daly, who has a tattoo of the Tufts "T" on his left leg. "The pride that I have in being a Tufts alum and a Tufts athlete comes across every day."
Daly, whose sincerity is widespread, thanked everyone in the administration, especially Athletic Director Bill Gehling, A74, and Casey, for their continuing assistance. An alumni email chain keeps everyone informed, and Daly's in-box is filled with congratulatory notes on the mornings after big victories. On Reunion Weekend this year, the 1953 New England championship team reunited at teammate Len Brown's, E53, house. Team alumni Bill Duryea, A50, Dan Pimental, A92, Joe Klein, A87, and Mike McConnell, A65, have provided great support. Saturday home games became a main event on campus, with students and families banding together behind the team. The Jumbos were 7–1 at the Oval.
All in all, the Tufts men's lacrosse program is in good hands. Not bad for a guy who never played the sport.
"Things happen for strange and different reasons, but I couldn't be happier with how they worked out," said Daly. "We're working real hard; the players, the coaches, but mainly the players. Without the players there would be no Coach of the Year."